Applying for a PhD program, particularly the handful that are already funded and provide something resembling a living wage, is one of the more demotivating activities I’ve put myself through in recent memory. Preparing packages of information and proposals all tailored to individual universities and supervisors, making slight changes in order to show how it can fit into their already-determined project is exhausting. It’s a lot of work, a lot of reading, and a lot of additional research that often is met with the same response: “We regret to inform you that we will not be pursuing your application further.”
To repeat this process, I search through database after database of available PhD positions, hoping to find anything relevant to my interests and background. The databases have multiple listings for different universities for similar projects that are all funded by some private sector organisation. One of my favourite obvious conflicts of interest was a proposed research project on the impacts of edutainment funded by a company developing products in that exact sector.
Other positions highlight interesting contradictions. One position I found claimed they wanted to learn why working class people weren’t taking advantage of the opportunities granted to them to enter ‘elite’ universities. It provided an annual stipend of €20.000 in a major capital city in Europe, where you’d probably end up paying extra just to survive. Shockingly, reflecting on the low salary and how that only deterred people who have to rely entirely on themselves probably didn’t factor into their project’s research. They want other answers that they can discuss at a distance; they don’t care that their structures inherently keep people out.
There are, of course, alternatives when a person enters a PhD program. Other areas include self-financing your way through a program (something many students could never afford) or seeking your own funding through a selection of grants (which requires an incredible amount of work to find, solicit, and secure). Though universities love to make claims that they are spaces that want to “encourage learning and education,” they consistently operate in ways that prove otherwise by making sure that they are as inaccessible to people as humanly possible. Funding and tuition schemes really are just the best way to highlight that.
But even if you can get around the funding, so many of these programs still ask for more information than they will ever actually need. They rarely offer the opportunity for people to leave academia and come back. So many of them run the institutions as if you should never leave them and that you’ll never be allowed back in should you try to return. They ask for reference letters from previous professors, ignoring that many people may go work outside of academia, have professional contacts, and also lose contact with our professors after almost a decade. Many make claims about wanting “excellent marks,” which makes it seem as if they believe people are nothing but their transcript and that can never change; it also assumes that people can’t have “difficult” times or struggle in other ways, forgetting that marks are frequently given through the criteria of others rather than actually earned by students. Then there’s the requirement for a list of publications, which requires an enormous amount of foresight and life planning for many of us. It neglects that, maybe, we might want to gain experiences elsewhere and build upon those with research, sharing them with our peers.
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t how you build and encourage curiosity in a society. This is how you kill it.
Thankfully, especially for my own self-esteem, I don’t value advanced degrees in the way that I know many others do. I’ve seen a number of people say it is “an honour” to be among such a small percentage of people in the world, talking as if this accomplishment makes them “better” than people who were unable or unwilling to complete one. These people actually make me feel really uncomfortable around them, and they often promote a range of elitist beliefs. It’s one thing to be proud of your work, but it’s another thing to act as if everyone else is “lesser than” you.
Others have been conflicted about obtaining such an advanced degree while realising the ways in which the institutions that support them intentionally keep others out, trying to figure out how best to make their institutions “more accessible” and “more diverse,” often not realising that pushes for so-called inclusivity rarely do anything other than tell marginalised groups how they should assimilate. Even for those who genuinely want to open up university programs to people from marginalised backgrounds, I feel bad because many of the programs end up being nothing more than superficial because the structure of the institution doesn’t change. They create band-aid solutions, often with minimal support; they still retain staff who leverage their power over students, and they maintain their connections to programs that work against their stated missions and continue to harm the community (usually for the sake of funding).
Then there are the people who would be much happier if, as part of school abolition, the university structure would simply go away and be replaced with something that actually wants to promote education and learning in the community. They want for knowledge to be accessible by all who wish to engage with it, and they want for people to develop a range of skills that they feel would be beneficial to them and their communities. They want people to build genuine connections, working together to solve problems. This is where I fit in.
Much of this is informed by my previous experiences in academia while completing my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. These were spaces where I had to fight so many unnecessary battles that detracted from my actual ability to learn while attending those schools, and those negative experiences have stuck with me far more than many of the lectures I attended or the projects I worked on.
I can still recall fighting for an entire year just to get my undergraduate university to accept transfer credits from five general education classes at another school I had previously attended. I wasted so much time fighting the dean of my department, who refused because they weren’t “exactly the same” as what that university provided. It wasn’t until they retired and were replaced with someone who was far more understanding that I finally achieved that goal. Think of all the things I could’ve done with the time I spent fighting one person because they wanted me to redo five classes.
My postgraduate experiences weren’t much better. I was put into a teaching placement at an all girls’ school with a bigoted white man who was my department’s head teacher and frequently made his students cry. Most of the students were migrants from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and he often targeted them with racist and ethnocentric comments. In the first week alone, there were so many moments where I would sit in the hallways with the girls, asking them if I could help and how. I talked to another head teacher outside of school and asked if they were aware that this was happening. They told me that most teachers knew about it but “couldn’t do anything” to stop it. When my supervising teacher found out that I had asked someone questions, he started harassing me. I went to my university to explain what had happened, and they forced me to deal with it or “risk failing.” The university liaison sent me away with a simple message: “You shouldn’t have started causing problems.”
My supervising teacher failed me anyway.
When I swapped to another program, I opted to participate in an internship course for my program to work within a related industry. The description claimed that they would “find all students an internship placement if they didn’t already have one.” This sounded great to me because I was still new to the area and didn’t know where to start, especially after having changed programs. When I attended the course during the first week, the professor running it had said that they “couldn’t find” placements for us and that we’d have to do it ourselves. They made the excuse that there just “weren’t enough internship placements” for everyone and that many of them had been given away. Curious, I asked if there would be any support in making connections to find my own internship. “You need to learn to do that for yourself.” I was forced to drop the class and find something else. Later, I learned that the professor running the course had made the decision to “teach us a lesson” about how real life doesn’t just give you jobs, even if they’re internships. They didn’t seem to think that, in taking the class, I was literally paying for the school to help me get access to an internship that I’d need to complete as part of the course’s requirements.
No one can convince me that people are able to genuinely learn in those kinds of environments, unless the lessons they’re being taught include how the system will frequently find ways to unnecessarily undermine, harm, harass, and abuse them.
There are people who have outlined many other examples of abuse within academia. In fact, Sara Ahmed discussed this very thing in her 2017 talk Snap!, mentioning students and staff who were told ‘not to rock the boat’ and to ‘avoid making waves’. Numbers of people from underrepresented backgrounds leave academia for a range of reasons, but much of it appears to be the institution’s lack of desire for genuine change. Meanwhile, the work environment in many places promotes toxic behaviours and exploitative work conditions, while a number of people claim that research spaces are set up to enable abusers.
Then there are all of the ways in which some universities treated their own students during the pandemic: lack of communication about procedures during the pandemic, some students being held to impossible standards (like a student who was caught in Myanmar’s blackout while attending a Canadian university), inconsistent grading policies, and university’s ignoring the privacy of students and surveilling them under the guise of “making sure they’re not cheating.”
Meanwhile, there are lies we tell ourselves in order to go on. Some of these lies about how to assimilate with the institutions (or, rather, all the ways we tell ourselves about how we failed to assimilate even in the face of dwindling job numbers).
Honestly, academia needs to fall.